13 Eponyms

OK, OK. It’s another article with a completely weird “-nym” word in the title.

You may well be asking yourself, “Eponyms? What’s an eponym? And how’s that going to help me put bread on my table?”

Well, to that I say, “Good questions!” Let’s deal with one of them. (Sorry — I can’t help you out with the bread.)

What’s an eponym?

In short — an eponym is something that’s named after something else (or, more often, named after a person).

There are so many eponyms out there, that they become really obvious once you know how to look out for them.

The most obvious eponyms are place names.

Places like Lousianna, named after King Louis XIV.

Places like Uzbekistan, named after Öz Beg Khan.

Places like Virginia, named after Queen Elizabeth’s lack of experience under the sheets … for some reason.

And places like Shittingdon, in the UK, named after … OK. Maybe not that one.

We also use eponyms to evoke influential thinkers, which is why I can say that I was brought up under Thatcherism, that Maoism led to mass starvation and that the Victorians were some of the weirdest people you’d ever meet when you do your Sunday afternoon time traveling.

I mean, seriously … Those guys were so strange. You can read more about them here.

But all these things are kind of obvious, right?

I mean, when you see them, you can feel the eponym. You totally picture Thatcher or Mao or Elizabeth or Victoria or whatever.

They’re easy to identify and make us go, “Yeah! Eponym!”

But some eponyms have become so much part of everyday language, that we don’t really think of them as eponyms. We forget (or never even knew) that they were named after someone in the first place.

They’ve taken on their own identity as functional parts of the English language.

And these are the useful ones — the ones that are used in everyday English.

1. Draconian /drəˈkəʊniən/

Some governments just love laying down the law.

And some of them get really carried away, issuing harsh penalties and making almost everything illegal.

We can describe this sort of hardcore lawmaking as draconian, named after an ancient Greek legislator called Draco.

2. Aphrodisiac /ˌæfrəˈdɪziæk/

Want something that’ll make you a little more frisky in bed?

Like some asparagus?

Or a Tom Jones song?

Then you’re looking for something eponymous with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

You’re looking for an aphrodisiac.

3. Kafkaesque /ˌkæfkəˈesk/

Here’s a weird thing about me:

One of my favourite things about living in different countries around the world, is when you have to get some sort of document from the government.

Perhaps it’s just a police clearance certificate.

Or maybe, it’s a full-on residence permit.

One thing’s for sure — if you’re somewhere like Turkey or Russia, you’re going to have the kafkaesque experience of waiting in line to be told to go to another office across town to collect a stamp, which needs to be verified before AND after collection in a different office (long queues in that one, too), before you can fill in the red form, which …. 

Well, now you’ve lost track of why you were there in the first place.

I don’t have to tell you that this is named after Franz Kafka, do I?


4. Herculean /ˌhɜːkjuˈliːən/

The 12 Tasks of Asterix was actually a parody of the Labors of Hercules, an ancient Greek story about a guy who had to prove he was a God by doing all sorts of impossible tasks.

These tasks were so difficult, that we’ve now got this nice eponym, “herculean” to refer to something you have to do that requires massive amounts of effort.

We often use it with the word “task”:

Merging sales and marketing is proving to be a thankless and herculean task.

We also have the phrase “require herculean effort”.

It’s amazing how you managed to convince the whole family to accept him — That must’ve required a herculean effort.

5. Darwinian /dɑːˈwɪniən/

OK. We all know who this guy is, right?

One of the oddest things about Charles Darwin was his fondness for trying to eat everything in the world.

Seriously, he considered it part of his duty as a scientist to cook up every animal he discovered.

And he did.

But of course, he’s better known for his theory of evolution, which can be crudely (and probably incorrectly) summed up with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

So, although the eponym “Darwinism” often just refers to his theory, we also use it to describe an environment where “survival of the fittest” seems to fit.

So, social Darwinism describes the, now discredited, idea that this “survival of the fittest” concept should appy to how we construct society.

Unsurprisingly it led to a lot of imperialism and racism.

We also have the Darwin awards — awards given posthumously to people who managed to inflict accidents on themselves in truly stupid ways.

Some candidates for the award have included a guy who was mauled by a bear while he was taking a selfie with it and a bloke who was trying to get a free train ticket from a machine by blowing it (and subsequently himself) up.

6. Narcissist /ˈnɑːsɪsɪst/

OK. Enough ancient Greeks?


OK then. One more.

Narcissus, a young, handsome Greek, rejected the sexual advances of a magical nymph and so, as a kind of punishment, was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and spend eternity staring at it.

Because that’s just the way things worked back in ancient Athens.

Anyway, a narcissist is someone who loves looking at themselves and admiring their own beauty.

7. Sideburns /ˈsaɪdbɜːnz/

Hair on the side of your head.

That’s it.

Think 1970s for the most extreme period of sideburns.

These, currently unfashionable, items got their name from Ambrose Burnside, a general in the American Civil War.

And when I tell you he was into facial hair … well, there’s no way of expressing just how much he was into facial hair:

8. Dickensian /dɪˈkenziən/

Been to Harry’s house recently?

His electricity’s been cut off and one of the windows is broken. He spends his evening playing cards with Yusuf around a candle — both of them wrapped up in blankets. Seriously Dickensian!

Dickens was so good at writing about the harsh, unhygienic and desperate lives of the working class in industrial revolution London, that his name has provided the eponym for situations like Harry’s.

9. Freudian slip /ˌfrɔɪdiən ˈslɪp/

Originally a Freudian slip was just a technical term. You used it when someone said something they didn’t mean as a result of a subconscious desire.

However, these days, we tend to use it for almost any kind of mis-speak.

Although, if it’s related to sex and mothers, then it’ll match the obsessions of this 20th century Viennese man who, among other things, was a massive fan of cocaine.

10. Pythonesque /ˌpaɪθəˈnɛsk/ 

If you’ve read my blog, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of pythonesque humour.

It’s why I can’t simply go ahead and describe how the past tenses work without including a fish and a giraffe and possibly some sort of tennis cake.

It’s also why a lot of my friends think I’m mad.

But at the end of the day, I’m really just a surrealist.

So, in a way, “pythonesque” really just means “surreal.”

Monty Python was a groundbreaking comedy series that started out in the 60s.

What made them stand out was just how absurd they were. Here’s a sketch of a man slapping another man with a fish.

Yep — that got a full commission from the BBC.

11. Orwellian /ɔːˈweliən/

CCTV cameras watching you use the toilet?

The government passing legislation that allows them to listen to your phone calls?

A credit system run through your phone that gives citizens different privileges based on their behaviour so that if you buy one too many bottles of wine this week, you’ll have to get the slow train back home?

All of these things are Orwellian. We use this word to describe some sort of dystopian authoritarianism.

This, of course, is named after the awesome author, George Orwell, and is largely referencing his work on his dystopian futurist novel, 1984.

What? You haven’t read it?

Then take the week off, get a copy and enjoy this wonderful tale of the worst things humans can do to other hum-…

Or, on second thoughts, maybe take up yoga.

Up to you.

12. Masochism /ˈmæsəkɪzəm/

When people get pleasure out of being humiliated or being in pain, then they are masochists.

Somehow, the Austrian writer, Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch ended up being the source for this word.

Apparently this annoyed him quite a lot.

13. Sadism /ˈseɪdɪzəm/

Interestingly, the opposite of masochism, sadism, is also an eponym.

This time the inspiration for the term (meaning to get pleasure out of inflicting pain on other people) comes from someone who probably fully approved of it.

The Marquis de Sade wrote a lot of books that featured a lot of … well … a lot of sadism in them. You’ll have to read them yourself if you want the details. Details that I have no intention of sharing here.

This all reminds me of a joke that my high school teacher somehow thought was appropriate to tell his class of 14-year-olds:

“A massochist asks a sadist, ‘please hurt me!’
The sadist says, “No!’”

And there we have it.

These are some of the most common, everyday eponyms.

I hope that, with their interesting backgrounds, you’re more likely to slip these into your everyday English conversations.

Good luck!

Did you enjoy reading this post?

If so, I might also like the following articles.

Gabriel Clark, LOS Consultant & Clark and Miller Co-founder